February 2017        

A critical assessment of Soviet agriculture

Eoghan O’Neill

The Soviet Union has many critics—some with just cause, but most of them ideologically driven to oppose the very nature of the system, despite the unprecedented scale of development that unfolded during the seventy-five years of its existence.
     In this article I specifically deal with agriculture, the growth rates from 1909 to 1975, and finally the most controversial period of the first five-year plan, which began the drive for collectivisation.
     I make no apology for looking at Soviet agriculture from a class viewpoint, specifically a worker’s viewpoint. The foundations on which all debate on the Soviet Union is built are ideological. This cannot be ignored, because if I hold to a liberal ideology, the idea of an economic system based on the eradication of private property and private enterprise, and on people serving the common good rather than fulfilling their individual desires, will never be acceptable, no matter how fair, how efficient or how equitable that particular system is. This in turn changes the objective nature of analysis from criticism to propaganda.
     All too often we hear the October Revolution being described as a workers’ revolution, and little attention is paid to the other side of the alliance: the peasants; and if it is talked about it’s all about forced collectivisation, famine, and murder.
     From the very first days of the October Revolution, and in the years preceding it, agriculture was just as important as industry for the cause of socialism. Without such an alliance the victory of the October Revolution, and its maintenance for the better part of a century, would have been impossible. This alliance is embodied in its emblem, the hammer and sickle, known the world over.
     Of course the revolution was led by the working class and its vanguard, the Bolsheviks, but Lenin understood the necessity of an alliance with the peasants, who in 1917 made up four-fifths of the Russian population, and half of whom lived below subsistence level. The peasants, just like the workers, had nothing to lose but their chains. Without such an alliance, socialising the basic means of production could not be completed; so by issuing the decree in November 1917 that all private land be handed over to the nation and its tillers, the Bolsheviks in power assured the peasantry of their place in the revolutionary alliance.
     Turning what was small-scale, unskilled, isolated and low-tech agricultural units (approximately 25 million small peasant households) into an agri-industrial complex was brought about by the often criticised and all too often misunderstood system of collective and state farms.
     State farms were state-run socialist agricultural enterprises in which the basic means of production and the resultant agricultural products were owned by the state. Collective farms were co-operatives of working peasants, who voluntarily pooled their efforts and resources to form large-scale farms based on socialised means of production and collective labour.
     In the collective farm the collective had to deliver a fixed quota to the state. Everything it produced above this quota was essentially a profit. The collectives could sell this surplus product, and the proceeds would be distributed among the collective’s workers.
     The collectivisation policy was the basis of the first five-year plan: to secure the physical needs of society along the socialist path of public ownership and planning. This policy was also the beginning of the process of turning the agricultural worker into an industrial worker, through the mechanisation of the production of farm products.
     Soviet governments placed great importance on agrarian policy. Their ultimate goal was to eliminate the essential distinctions between town and country and between mental and manual work, and to convert agricultural labour into a variety of industrial labour, thus strengthening and deepening the worker-peasant alliance.
     Some of the hardships and problems associated with the policy of forced collectivisation are discussed below; but to give a sense of the expansion of agriculture it is important to look at some of the indicators of output from the years 1909 to 1975. Soviet agriculture was more productive, using less labour, than Tsarist Russia. The number of workers engaged in agriculture fell by 1.7 million, yet the collective and state farms produced 240 per cent more than in the best agricultural year before the Revolution, as table 1 shows. (All tables are taken from Soviet Union: Political and Economic Reference Book, 1975.)

Table 1: Gross agricultural output, annual averages, in 1965 prices

 Million rubles
1909–191326,100
1936–194029,800
1961–196566,300
1971–197491,100

      Annual growth between 1951 and 1975 was 3.4 per cent, compared with 1.7 per cent in the United States. The output in crop farming clearly shows the efficiency with which agricultural labour continued to evolve. This was done by the large-scale development, distribution and advancement of technology, machinery and equipment in the production and reproduction of crop farming and livestock breeding—essential given the fact that between 1917 and 1975 the Soviet population increased by more than 90 million (despite the imperialist invasions after the First World War and more than 20 million Soviet sacrifices in the Second World War).

Table 2: Average annual grain production (million tons), 1909–1974

1909–19131936–19401961–19651971–1974Percentage change, 1909–1974
Grain72.577.4130.3191.9165%
Cotton0.682.54.997.621,021%
Sugar beet10.117.159.278.4676%
Sunflower seed0.751.795.076.22729%
Potatoes30.649.481.690.1194%
Vegetables5.510.516.922.9316%
      It must also be stated that this was not a result of an increase in the geographical size of the Soviet Union (though this counts for some change): the main reason for growth, especially in the later years, was the intensification and industrialisation of agriculture that produced continuously increasing yields.

Table 3: Annual average yield per hectare (kg)

1909–19131936–19401961–19651971–1974Percentage change, 1909–74
Grain6907601,0201,560126%
Cotton1,3001,2002,0602,740111%
Sugar beet15,00014,30016,50022,60051%
Sunflower seed7605501,1201,35078%
Potatoes7,8007,1009,40011,30045%
Vegetables8,4007,60011,60013,90065%
      Between 1913 and 1975 the output of livestock products went up by 250 per cent; again a large part of this increase was due to livestock productivity rather than expansion. The Soviet Union’s share of world milk output increased from 13 per cent in 1940 to 21 per cent in 1973, producing and supplying a fifth of the world’s milk and butter needs.
     Clearly, without the October Revolution and the building of the first socialist state, Russia and the other socialist republics could not have developed at such a rate; and the cornerstone on which all industry and economic growth is built is agriculture. Prof. Robert Allen states:
If Russian women had not been educated or industrialisation had been slower, then the USSR would have had a late fertility transition (as in India) or no fertility transition (as in Pakistan). Simulation of these possibilities shows that the population would have reached one billion in 1989 . . . A population expansion of that order would surely have cut the growth in per capita GDP.
      Of course this article is not a blind endorsement of every policy of the Soviet Union, but it tries to show what socialising the means of production did for agriculture and, by extension, for the development of the Soviet Union, starting from an underdeveloped base. It would be wrong to brush aside the problems that resulted from this policy, but it would also be negligent as well as divisive not to put this policy in its wider global and historical context, from which these policies had to develop at the stage and at the rate at which they did.
     The first fact of note is that the Soviet state was born from the womb of the Russian Tsarist state—a predominantly underdeveloped agrarian and small-scale industrial country. The social dynamics and class forces did not disappear overnight, just because the Revolution was successful.
     Not all peasants were equal. There was a stratum of the peasantry who were not subsistence farmers, the “kulaks,” a petit-bourgeois element inherited from the Tsarist period. They became a subversive and destructive element in the countryside, as they were being eliminated as a class, through high taxes and being subsumed in collective and state farms, causing many problems for the new socialist state.
     Together with the need to feed the rapidly expanding urban work force, the constant threat of foreign invasion, the inability to secure foreign loans and therefore the need to use agricultural surpluses for sale to foreign markets to help the rapid growth of industrialisation, this led to a rapid collectivisation policy that, under more favourable circumstances, would not have to be pursued.
     The hardships endured by those living in the countryside, including episodes of famine in parts of Ukraine in 1932–33, cannot be attributed personally to Stalin, as so many do. Prof. Stephen Wheatcroft argues that there was a range of factors, including the accelerating rate of growth in the population, urbanisation, the migration of large numbers of predominantly male peasants from agricultural areas to the towns, new inter-regional developments within the Soviet Union, the quest for grain procurements for export, and natural problems affecting food supplies, especially the freezing winters of 1928 and 1929 and the severe drought of 1931 (in the historical context of one serious drought every ten or eleven years in the most productive agricultural zones). These would all have placed a large and increasing strain on the food system, which in turn led to episodes of famine.
     Others, such as Anna Louise Strong, explain that
there was a serious grain shortage in the 1932 harvest due chiefly to inefficiencies of the organisational period of the new large-scale mechanised farming among peasants unaccustomed to machines. To this was added sabotage by dispossessed kulaks, the leaving of the farms by 11 million workers who went to new industries, the cumulative effect of the world crisis in depressing the value of Soviet farm exports, and a drought in five basic grain regions in 1931.
      This was used as propaganda by exiled Ukrainian nationalist, church and fascist forces against the Soviet Union.
     That severe hardship and hunger were widespread cannot be denied. Some of the factors lay in the hands of Soviet policy-makers, while others were outside their control; but their trajectory and the problems of that particular period can just as much be attributed to the Western countries’ aggressive and contemptuous stance towards the fledgling socialist state. Joseph Ball also argues that
the underlying cause of the famine however was under-development. Russia suffered from repeated famines in its history for precisely this reason . . . By industrialising under Stalin, the Soviet Union was able to lift the spectre of famine from the Soviet people. If a “culprit” for the famine of the 1930s really needs to be found, then perhaps it should be found in the old, moribund Tsarist system that prevented Russia from copying the economic success of countries like the UK and USA in the hundred and fifty years or so prior to 1917.
      Foreign aggression forced the hand of the Soviet government, leading to the policy of rapid industrialisation and forced collectivisation, which Stalin summed up in his statement: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.” This foresight indeed not only saved the Soviet Union from annihilation but saved the world from a global fascist hegemony. Once the Soviet Union developed sufficiently, famine was no longer a threat.
     Academics such as Prof. Robert Allen and Prof. Stephen Wheatcroft (quoted above) have reassessed the validity and the narrative surrounding the period of the first five-year plan. Wheatcroft concludes that
there is no basis to argue that the Soviet government purposefully caused a famine in the countryside . . . That the authorities had purposefully provoked these famines to attack Ukrainian Nationalism or the Kulaks does not make sense in the complex manner in which these crises unfolded, and the attempts earlier to exclude Ukraine from the worst of the stress.
      Robert Allen states:
Recent research shows that the standard of living also increased briskly. Calories are the most basic dimension of the standard of living, and their consumption was higher in the late 1930s than in the 1920s . . . By the late 1930s, the recovery of agriculture increased calorie availability to 2,900 per day—a significant increase over the late 1920s. The food situation during the Second World War was severe, but by 1970 calorie consumption rose to 3,400, which was on a par with western Europe.
      Both writers are critical of Soviet policies, Robert Allen asserting that collectivisation did not reap the high rewards it promised and that the hardships endured were not necessary if the policy-makers had kept to the earlier New Economic Policy, whereby the state allowed a form of free market and capitalism—all subject to state control—while socialised state enterprises were to operate on a profit basis.
     This argument is not new. It was the subject of fierce debates within the Soviet Union in the 1920s, which then formed the basis of the first five-year plan. In fact we could define the problems and the forces within the communist, socialist and workers’ movements along the lines of the dispute between those pursuing a “socialist road”—moving away from commodity production and profit motive towards a planned economy of allocation and subsidies for innovation—and those pursuing a “capitalist road”—moving towards commodity production and the profit motive for innovation and away from a planned economy.
     This theme will need to be expanded upon in further articles, because when we are evaluating the achievements and the mistakes of the Soviet Union, with a view to learning from them and informing ourselves for the future, we can see that diversions in political ideology within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union played an enormous role in the policies that led to stagnation, criticisms, capitulation and the eventual dismantling of the USSR.

References

  • Allen, Robert C., Farm to Factory: A Reassessment of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Ball, Joseph, “The need for planning: The restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the decline of the Soviet economy,” Cultural Logic, 2010.
  • Soviet Union Political and Economic Reference Book, 1975.
  • Strong, Anna Louise, “Searching Out the Soviets,” New Republic, 7 August 1935.
  • Wheatcroft, Stephen G., “Soviet and Chinese famines in historical perspective,” in Mathias Middell and Felix Wemheuer (eds.), Hunger and Scarcity under Socialist Rule, Leipzig: Leipzig University Press, 2012.

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